RALEIGH — When Cynthia Marshall was 15 years old and growing up in the housing projects in Richmond, Calif., her father, in an angry outburst, predicted that she and her sister were destined to be “stuck in the projects with no way out.”
By sheer force of will, Marshall transformed that devastating prediction into an inspiration.
“I told my sister, ‘We will be the first to go to college. We will get our mother out of the projects. And I will be president of something some day,’ ” Marshall said.
Marshall made good on those promises, which included serving as president of AT&T’s North Carolina operations from 2007 until the end of last year – when she was promoted to senior vice president of human resources for the corporate giant. Marshall, who works at AT&T’s headquarters in Dallas, also was the first African-American to lead the board of directors of the N.C. Chamber, a powerful lobbying group for business, and was one of North Carolina’s most visible corporate executives during her tenure here.
She shared her story and a few of the life lessons she learned along the way in her commencement speech Sunday morning at St. Augustine’s University. The 228 graduates who stepped up to the podium were the first to receive their diplomas since the school, established in 1867, changed its name from St. Augustine’s College.
Marshall brought a Sunday-morning spirit to her talk on a chilly, blustery morning on the school’s quadrangle.
“I know it’s a little cloudy today; it’s a little rainy,” Marshall said. “But that’s all right. I’m fired up! Are you fired up?”
Whoops and hollers ensued.
Marshall shared several pieces of advice with the graduating class, including:
• “Always remember where you came from, or you might forget where you are going.”
“Don’t just look back but give back to your family, your community, and, yes, bring some money back to this college.”
• “Do the right thing.”
“There’s a different between doing things right and doing the right thing. Never compromise your integrity.”
• “Accept adversity. Make a vow never to give up.”
“Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. Bad things do happen.”
Marshall also served up a feel-good story for the lovelorn.
She told of breaking up with her boyfriend when she was starting her freshman year of college, telling him: “I will call you the day I graduate. I said I don’t have time for some sweet-talking cutie who wants to play when I need to study.”
Upon graduation, she telephoned him as promised and persevered even when she identified herself as Cyn and he replied, “Cyn who?”
Nor was she put off when he informed her that he was engaged.
“I’m happy to say I just celebrated last Tuesday 30 years of marriage to that boy. Stand up, Kenny boy!!” Marshall exclaimed triumphantly as her husband, seated in the audience, arose.
“So some of you ladies,” Marshall concluded, “might have to make a call today. My husband will tell him that you were worth waiting for.”
Sunday’s commencement exercise also had a hint of drama: Would the rain that was threatening put a damper on things?
Chifonda Wingate, a 42-year-old single mother from Durham who was on hand to see son Christopher Sweet graduate, confidently predicted it wasn’t going to rain on her son’s parade.
But if it did, she said, her son’s graduation would be no less sweet.
“That’s what umbrellas are for,” Wingate said. “We’re good.”
Twice during the ceremony a scattering of raindrops triggered a mass unfurling of umbrellas by proud parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and lifelong family friends. But, on both occasions, it turned out to be a false alarm.